Azovstal steel plant: Putin orders his troops not to storm last Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports on the latest developments from the besieged port city of Mariupol, where those wanting to escape risk running the gauntlet of mortar rounds

President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian forces to cancel their plans to storm a Mariupol steel plant, in which hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians are sheltered.

However, the Russian leader told defence minister Sergei Shoigu the Azovstal steelworks should be blocked “so that not even a fly comes through”.

In recent days, Russian attacks have pounded the site, which is thought to be the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port city.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu assured President Putin on Thursday that the sprawling plant was “securely blocked”. He said the rest of the city was “liberated”; the Russian leader hailed that as a “success”.

Leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands robs the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol.

However, Thursday marks the first time Moscow said it's seized the rest of Mariupol - a claim that has not yet been verified.

A Ukrainian commander on the inside issued a video plea for help on Wednesday, saying the plant's inhabitants, said to include children, “may have only a few days or hours left”.

The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

Serhiy Volyna makes an impassioned plea from beneath the Azovstal steel plant

A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, remain in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 11 square kilometres. President Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians are also trapped.

On Thursday, Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk repeated her demand that Russian troops open a humanitarian corridor to evacuate those on the Azovstal site. Following her comments, a Kremlin spokesman told reporters “there was and still is an opportunity for Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms and come out via established corridors".

Ms Vereshchuk also said the latest effort to open a safe corridor for those in the wider city had failed because the Russians did not observe a ceasefire.

More than 100,000 people overall are believed trapped in the wider city with little if any food, water, medicine or heat. The city’s pre-war population was 400,000.

Has Russia's second attempt to seize Mariupol been more successful than the first? Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports live from Zaporizhzhia

In its latest intelligence update, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russia likely aims to demonstrate significant successes ahead of its annual Victory Day on May 9, which could impact "how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date".

Victory Day celebrates the Soviet Union defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. It is one of Russia's most revered holidays.

With global tensions running high, Russia reported the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat. President Putin boasted that it can overcome any missile defence system and make those who threaten Russia “think twice”.

The head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch out of northern Russia “a present to NATO.” The Pentagon described the test as “routine” and said it wasn’t considered a threat.

Rohit Kachroo spoke to the few dozen who finally managed to escape Mariupol on what might have been one of the last evacuation convoys

On the battlefield, Ukraine said Moscow continued to mount assaults across the east, probing for weak points in Ukrainian defensive lines. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air attacks on targets that included concentrations of troops and vehicles. The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories.

Detaching it from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war, after the botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.

A local Mariupol resident walks past a damaged vehicle marked with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military. Credit: AP

The UK Defence Ministry said Russian forces were advancing from staging areas in the Donbas toward Kramatorsk, which continues to suffer from persistent rocket attacks.

In a video address, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russians were not “abandoning their attempts to score at least some victory by launching a new, large-scale offensive”.

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Analysts have said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years. As well as saying the overall invasion was going "according to plan", Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands for ending the conflict - days after President Putin said the talks were at a “dead end”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the ball is in their court, we’re waiting for a response.” He gave no details on the draft, and it was not clear when it was sent or whether it offered anything new to the Ukrainians, who presented their own demands last month.

President Zelenskyy said he had not seen or heard of the proposal, though one of his top advisers said the Ukrainian side was reviewing it. Moscow has long demanded Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from other countries. Other sources of tension include the status of both the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine, where the separatists have declared independent republics recognised by Russia.

US president Joe Biden was set to announce plans on Thursday to send more military aid to Ukraine, according to a US official who was not authorised to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Several Western officials have promised similar in recent days.

Meanwhile, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen became the latest European leaders to show support with a visit to Kyiv.